Friday, September 24, 1999

FBI focuses on scientist in telescope lens theft


Charges filed in 18-year disappearance

BY EARNEST WINSTON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A college professor in Tennessee pleaded not guilty Thursday in a case involving the theft of a 119-year-old telescope lens missing from the Cincinnati Astronomical Society for 18 years.

        A trial date was set for Nov. 30 for Robert Keith Thomas, 50, of Oakridge, Tenn., who appeared Thursday in U.S. District Court in Knoxville to answer the charge.

        The Federal Bureau of In vestigation in Tennessee will keep the lens, worth at least $25,000, until the matter is resolved in the courts.

        Mr. Thomas was indicted Wednesday on one count of possession and/or disposal of property transported in interstate commerce in excess of $5,000, and three counts of providing false statements to authorities. He faces up to 20 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine.

        John Ventre, an honorary life member of the Cincinnati Astronomical Society, is credited by fellow members and authorities with zealously pursuing the whereabouts of the lens.

        The 81/4-inch lens was handmade in 1880 by Alvan Clark and Sons Refractor Co. in Cambridge, Mass., and acquired by the society in Miami Heights in 1924.

        “We never lost hope of finding out what happened to (the lens),” Mr. Ventre said.

        In May, the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office reopened its criminal investigation after learning about the potential location of the lens.

        Mr. Ventre's friend, Robert Araial, co-author of Alvan Clark and Sons, Artists and Optics, learned the lens was in Tennessee and contacted Mr. Thomas, professor of physics at Roane State Community College in Harrimann, Tenn. Without being asked about the whereabouts of the lens, the professor denied it was stolen from the group, authorities said.

        According to the grand jury's indictment, Mr. Thomas said on three different occasions he:

        • Purchased the lens from a physics professor at the College of Wooster in Ohio.

        • Claimed he was not aware of any theft of the lens.

        • Purchased the lens from a private individual in 1994 for $500 at the Astrofest in Johnson City, Tenn.

        That's when suspicion grew about Mr. Thomas' role in the theft. About the time the lens was stolen in 1981, Mr. Thomas was a member of the Miami Valley Astronomical Society in Dayton, Ohio, whose members often did joint programming with the Cincinnati society.

        So the theory, Mr. Ventre says, is that Mr. Thomas also may have been a member of the Cincinnati society or was friends with its members; thus, he may have gotten the telescope from friends who had access to the building housing the lens, or used the key himself.

        Mr. Thomas had donated the lens to the Roane State Community College to be used in an observatory the college built. He also wrote an article for a Tennessee newspaper, detailing the history of the lens.

        “It's just like a family member stealing your family jewels,” said Mr. Ventre, who was friends with Mr. Thomas.

        Later, Hamilton County Sheriff's Detective Pete Alderucci and FBI special Agent Dan Reece of the Knoxville Division began investigating the theft of the lens. Their effort resulted in the recovery of the lens and the subsequent indictment of Mr. Thomas.

        Jonathan Jennings, a trustee of the society, said a security system is being installed for the four observatory buildings, including the one housing the telescope with the missing lens.

       



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